The Sugarcubes - Biography
By Brad Austin
Before Bjork Gundmundsdottir became Bjork, the experimental dance-pop visionary who scores higher on the charts each time she releases an album, she was one of two lead singers in a band from Iceland called the Sugarcubes. The other singer was Einar Orn Benediktsson, who was really more of a shouter than a singer. His recorded outbursts were often unintelligible and obnoxious, and truly, if there was one reason to dislike the Sugarcubes, it was Benediktsson's voice. After releasing a spectacular debut, a couple of the band members went through divorces (some with each other) and tensions started to arise between Benediktsson and Bjork. They broke up after three albums, leaving Bjork free to rise to stardom on her own.
Sykurmolarnir, better known as the Sugarcubes, were formed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. They began as a cluster of other bands before melding into one. Drummer Siggi Baldursson played in the band Þeyr, aka Theyr. Theyr gained some attention for their work with members of Killing Joke in 1982, when that band's singer, Jaz Coleman, left the UK for Iceland to escape an impending apocalypse. Purrkur Pillnikk was another Icelandic band formed by Einar Benediktsson and Bragi Olafesson. They played punk rock and distributed their records through Gramm, a label owned by Benediktsson, who soon began a collaboration with the aforementioned Theyr drummer, and Bjork Gundmundsdottir. The latter had been involved in music for the better part of her life, and was trying to earn her living in Iceland with a career that traced all the way back to a children's album she made at the age of 11.
The band that Bjork formed with Benediktsson and Baldursson in 1984 was called K.U.K.L., meaning “witch” in Icelandic. Einar Mellax, a keyboardist, soon joined the trio, and they began recording loud, clamorous post-punk tunes with an artistic flair. They were signed to British record label Crass. By 1986, they had added a second guitarist, Thor Eldon, who was also Bjork's husband at the time, and they welcomed in Benediktsson's former partner from Purrkur Pillnikk, Bragi Olafesson, as a bassist. They were now called the Sugarcubes. According to the band's own testimony, the exact day of their official formation was June 8th, 1986, the same day that Bjork gave birth to a son.
The band gigged well into the next year, at which point they signed a contract with London label One Little Indian. For distribution in the US, they were signed by Elektra. The band's debut, Life's Too Good, arrived in 1989. The album had been hyped to the nth degree before its release, based on the terrific first single, “Birthday.” John Peel's playing of the song resulted in its being voted a single of the year by his listeners. Fortunately, the Sugarcubes' debut was full of songs that matched the appeal of “Birthday,” and so they were able to deliver on the hype. “Motorcrash,” for example, became a top-ten modern rock single in the States. The album, very well-reviewed in the US and UK alike, peaked at number 54 in the US and was undoubtedly the best of the three they released. Bjork's vocals and presence were already earning her the spotlight, much to the chagrin of Benediktsson.
In 1989, the band released their follow-up, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (One Little Indian/Elektra) after a year of drama. Bjork and Thor got a divorce, and the latter married Magga Ornolfsdottir, who subsequently became the band's keyboardist, replacing Mellax. Olafesson then divorced his wife (the twin sister of Baldursson's wife) and became the husband of Benediktsson. The nuptial bond made Benediktsson and Olafesson the first openly gay married couple in popular music. But were they really married? After this union was recognized, reports started swirling that the whole thing had been a hoax. The two alleged newlyweds released a notice of their matrimony to One Little Indian via fax, and the label released it to the public. But since then, there has been no indication that the marriage was real or even that either of these two men were actually homosexual.
If there's one thing critics definitely pointed to as a flaw in Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!, it was the over-presence of Benediktsson, who was singing a lot more in a style that contrasted unpleasantly with Bjork's. Aside from this, the songwriting was not as strong as it had been on Life's Too Good. The band fell out of favor, slightly, with journalists on both sides of the Atlantic. They fell in the charts as well, as the album halted at number 70 on the Billboard 200, despite “Regina” reaching number 2 on the modern rock charts.
At the end of their long international tour, the members of the Sugarcubes took some time apart. After a year or so, they regrouped and recorded their third album. Prior to its release, a collection of remixes called It's-It (1992, Elektra) hit stores in Europe. Stick Around For Joy (1992, One Little Indian/Elektra), the proper follow-up to Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week, arrived later that year. Although the album had received perfectly decent reviews, it was not strong enough to take the band to the next level, and did not produce a single that was on a par with “Birthday.” Furthermore, Benediktsson's uneven vocal meanderings had become even more grating, hurting the album's appeal in the process.
The Sugarcubes disbanded after the album came out. Bjork kick-started her solo career the next year with Debut. A best-of collection, The Great Crossover Potential (Elektra), was released in 1998. Eight years later, all three Sugarcubes studio LPs were reissued in one package, The Complete Studio Albums box (2006, One Little Indian). In November of that year, the band reunited for one show in Reykjavik in celebration of the 20th year anniversary of their still-magnificent debut single, “Birthday.”